Courtesy New York Historical Society

A new exhibition examines the master plan that made New York what it is today

In the early 19th century most of the 96,000 or so residents of New York City were packed into homes near Manhattan's southern tip. The island's principle artery of transportation was not majestic Broadway or sleek Fifth Avenue but a winding dirt route known as the Boston Post Road. The area above what's now Canal Street was divided into large green estates, and someone describing the environment on Manhattan as a whole would have been more likely to use the word bucolic than congested.

Today the streets and avenues that constitute Manhattan's grid feel like the very bones of the island — no less essential to the city's life than the skeletal system is to our own — but it wasn't until the master plan of 1811 that this scheme came into being. To celebrate this 200th anniversary, the Museum of the City of New York is exhibiting a vast collection of maps, documents, and artifacts tracing the grid's evolution. "The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan for Manhattan, 1811—2011," will begin on December 6 and run through April 2012. Atlantic Cities readers can get a sneak peek in the slide show below.

"City cultures are defined by their plans. Los Angeles is subdivisions, Paris is broad boulevards, Vienna is the Ringstrasse, and New York is the grid," says Sarah Henry, the museum's deputy director and chief curator. "The grid has shaped this vibrant city, imposing an order and controlling its chaos."

Before the creation of the master plan, street construction on Manhattan was approved by the city's Common Council on an ad hoc basis. Some of these early decisions were based on a grid-like design, but as the population of New York increased, it became clear that this piecemeal review process wouldn't cut it. In 1807 the state responded to this desire for a more holistic approach toward structuring the city by empowering three commissioners to impose a plan on the island.

Ultimately the commissioners chose a grid system full of streets and avenues placed at right angles because they felt it was most conducive to housing. The alternatives at the time would have been to design circles or plazas, in the style of Washington, D.C., or capital cities in Europe, says Hilary Ballon, a professor urban studies at New York University, who served as curator of the exhibition and is editor of a companion book.

"I think it was a combination of these preliminary, almost default moves toward the grid, a sense of its practicality, of its easy-to-implement nature, of its enabling of real estate development, that tipped them in that way," says Ballon. "My hunch is they didn't seriously consider any other strategy."

The job of surveying Manhattan was left to a man named John Randel. A stickler for precision, Randel fashioned handcrafted measuring tools that didn't expand or contract in response to the weather. Over the next several years he and his small army of surveyors took these instruments to every corner of the island. Property owners didn't exactly welcome these intrusions — Randel himself was arrested more than once for trespassing — and the state had to pass new laws to assert the rights of the surveyors to fulfill their task.

The exhibition describes how the grid eventually gave rise to the real estate market on Manhattan. At first many land owners contested the loss of their expansive country estates. One well-known critic was Clement Clarke Moore, author of the poem "T'was the Night Before Christmas," who owned enough land to cover roughly six city blocks in what's now the Chelsea neighborhood. Moore initially decried the transformation of Manhattan, but over time he and other land owners recognized how much money they would make by subdividing their land. Some of Randel's maps overlay these original properties with the newly conceived grid.

"You have this extraordinary record of the clash of two systems," says Ballon. "The new abstract geometric system of right-angled streets that completely disregards what was on the ground. Then you have the existing system with its farms and its barns and its winding roads and its streams and its marshes and its property lines, none of which are rectilinear."

The exhibition follows the implementation and development of the grid through to present day. Along the way it examines why the east side was built up first; how Broadway survived despite the commissioners' intention to eliminate the street in the original plan; and subsequent attempts to reform the grid, including those led by Andrew Haswell Green in the late 19th century. The exhibition concludes with a consideration of the grid as a paradigm for modern urbanism.

"There was a moment in the history of New York where the city realized it had an opportunity to shape its future," says Ballon. "That had a lasting and hugely beneficial impact on the city. That capacity for confronting big challenges and recognizing the opportunity it presents, and being able to make the investment and follow through over decades and decades, is what I find so impressive."

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